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Aquatic grass hailed as boon to bay


After 14 years of laboratory testing, scientists with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service said yesterday that they have isolated an aquatic grass that will help stop the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Bayshore" smooth cord grass grips eroding soils and protects shorelines better than common varieties of cord grass, said the scientists, who offered the new variety for public use during an afternoon ceremony at the University of Maryland's Center for Estuarine and Environmental Studies at Horn Point in Cambridge.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and similar agencies in other states increasingly are turning to aquatic grasses to control shoreline erosion, which can destroy wildlife habitats as well as harm water quality. The grasses hold back soil with their roots and stems; they also absorb nutrients that can cause harmful algae blooms.

Bayshore, which was tested against 110 other varieties, has proven in laboratory and field tests that it will grow under a variety of adverse conditions and climates, said Curtis Sharp, a plant materials specialist with the conservation service.

That means that, unlike common varieties, it can be used to protect waterfront from Texas to Massachusetts.

"It's as though you are purchasing a product with the 'Good Housekeeping' seal on it," said Mr. Sharp, who first identified Bayshore on the banks of the Choptank River in 1977 and sent them to the federal Plant Materials Center in Cape May, N.J., for testing.

Bayshore is available at three commercial nurseries -- two in Long Island, N.Y., and Benedict's Nursery in Salisbury. The first plants should be for sale by the end of June.

Not everyone is awed by the new grass. Sue McInch, a horticulturist with Environmental Concern Inc., a St. Michaels-based nursery and consulting firm, said, "We think our [common variety] plants are OK, plus we believe we have maintained genetic diversity."

Isolating and growing Bayshore from a single sample of plants may make it susceptible to blights, Ms. McInch said.

"You can wipe out an entire population if a plant has the same genetic makeup," she said.

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